Playing the season out in July

The Team

Mark Howard | Chris Mitchell, Steve Williams, Guy Branston, Luke O'Brien | Dominic Rowe, Richie Jones, David Syers, Jamie Green | James Hanson, Mark Stewart | Michael Flynn, Andrew Burns, Ross Hannah, Nialle Rodney, Nahki Wells, Lee Bullock

Pre-season football matches should never be mistaken for football matches.

For sure they look like football matches and to the unschooled they would appear to be football matches: twenty two men hoof a bit of leather around and occasionally stop to score, swear or stop for some other reason; but they are not.

Chief amongst reasons for this contradiction between what seems to be and what is is that pre-season football matches are not processed as football matches are by supporters and listening in around Nethermoor as Bradford City recorded a 3-2 victory over Guiseley proved this.

Firstly – and not least importantly – is the result which drifts into irrelevance almost on the sound of the final whistle. It matters not that the Bantams were the victors, nor indeed is the manner of the victory especially important. City twice trailed the team from two divisions below and came back to win but no prizes are given for character in friendlies. Contrast that to the next time a teams from two divisions away play each other in Leeds.

What matters on an evening like tonight is extrapolation. Looking at performances and casting an eye into the distance of next May and assessing how that performance will pan out.

So Mark Stewart – starting for City up front alongside skipper for the night James Hanson – touches in an equaliser to make the game 2-2 and is dubbed a “natural born goalscorer” destined for fifteen to twenty goals a season. His smart and accurate touch at the front stick after good work from Hanson is impressive. Hanson wins much all evening against defenders who include former Bantams Daniel Ellis, Mark Bower and Simon Ainge and back to his best Hanson will be a force.

Ainge twice goes close to giving his new club the lead over his old as City’s back four struggle to clear their lines and it is a weak headed clearance by Steve Williams that allows Alex Davidson to score the opener. Branston has to sort out Williams soon, so grumbles go, or we will have a problem. Chris Mitchell can hit a dead ball, but one worries about him at the back, unfair on the strength of a single mistake.

Extrapolations on goalkeeper Mark Howard are not good. Gavin Rothery scores the home side’s second which takes a deflection but leaves the keeper looking flat. In-between the two strikes David Syers gets onto the rebound from a Stewart shot and equalises.

There is much extrapolation about Jamie Green on City’s left who is a big winner on the night looking a player of some ability in a first half in which City struggle to maintain a tempo. When the Bantams retain the ball they look good – and players like Richie Jones are impressive – but there are spells in which play becomes frantic. Dominic Rowe bursts with pace but lacks composure blazing wide and over a number of times but he shows a usefulness. Extrapolating Jones’ ball out to the winger, and the winger surging forward, is enjoyable as City go in at half time behind.

More troubling though is the extrapolation of a team which loses the ball being punished too readily, and of a team which is not able to maintain a consistent tempo being too easily pushed off stride. David Syers’ goal masks a performance in which he has struggled to take control of a midfield and his replacement with Michael Flynn turns the tide in City’s favour.

Stewart’s equaliser comes, and then a superb delivery form Chris Mitchell is headed firmly into the goal by James Hanson. Hanson celebrates a goal against his former club and could have another later as City – despite the odd worry over being turned around too quickly when giving the ball away – keep the ball better and pass around the field with more fluency. Nahki Wells and Ross Hannah both test the home keeper’s palms and in the end the scoreline could have been more tipped towards the Bantams, but the result does not matter.

What seems to matter is the mood of supporters who wander away happy. Guiseley supporters have seen enough to suggest that their next season may be successful enough while City fans have seen enough trailers of what is to come to extrapolate from balmy July night to the sunny afternoons of next May and conclude that it might be a season they would enjoy too.

Tonight is more than your average pre-season friendly

Tonight has being a long time coming for James Hanson. Two years on from bullying Burnley’s Michael Duff and David Edgar during a pre-season friendly when on trial for Bradford City, the 23-year-old striker makes a first return to Nethermoor Park and the club who helped to propel him into professional football.

This game has being a long time coming too for Guiseley. After Hanson’s trial proved successful enough to earn a contract at Valley Parade, a lengthy squabble over the transfer fee was only ended via a tribunal who stated City must complete a pre-season friendly against their local neighbours within 12 months. A fall out over kick off time with previous manager Peter Taylor saw a planned game a year ago called off, and it would appear City have been fortunate that Guiseley hasn’t taken action against the Bantams for failing to honour this game within the agreed timescales.

Finally it’s here though, and for Hanson – who is expected to be named captain for the evening following Ross Hannah taking the armband for the visit to his old club on Friday – tonight should be a memorable night in reflecting how far he has come. Having first appeared onto Stuart McCall’s radar following an impressive pre-season friendly display against the Bantams in 2008, a year later he was offered that trial following an outstanding record of 46 goals from 67 games for the Lions.

Hanson’s first year at City was a huge success, finishing top scorer with 13 goals from 39 games and being voted player of the season by supporters. Talk of higher league interest began to surface, and Guiseley might have been looking forward to an extra windfall following the tribunal hearing granting them a sell-on clause. Last season progress slowed for Hanson, with only 9 goals from the same number of games as the year before and a number of average performances. He wasn’t helped by a chronic lack of service from his team-mates, but finding many supporters on his back towards the end of the campaign was not the sort of second season he would have hoped for.

Like a number of players who remain at the club from last year, this is a big season for Hanson where his career can go in one of two directions. With some justification he can say he has proved himself a professional footballer, but things can quickly change and the drive to improve that has seen him rise from Eccleshill United to Guiseley to scoring a winning goal for Bradford City against Nottingham Forest needs to be rediscovered, rather than him going into a comfort zone.

For Hanson and the team-mates who line up tonight, a look into the eyes of their opponents offer stark warnings of how quickly you can fall. The Guiseley squad is awash with former Bradford City players who have fallen down into the part-time ranks. There’s Mark Bower, 10 years a Bantam, who signed from FC Halifax during the summer. Bower’s drop down the leagues still seems a huge shock, though a large reason for him becoming a part-time player was to jointly set up an Estate Agent business.

Alongside him at the back tonight could be Simon Ainge, who spent two seasons on the fringes of the City first team, plus Danny Ellis – who never made a senior appearance. In midfield there’s Luke Sharry, a bright talent who many – myself included – predicted would make it at Valley Parade. Up front there’s Danny Forrest, who nine years ago memorably burst into the first team and was so hotly rated that the club set up a special website dedicated to him. Tonight has probably felt a long-time coming for all five of these Guiseley players, who each might feel they have a point to prove.

If Hanson takes most of the attention on the field, the Nethermoor Park boardroom may also be a topic of interest as City’s pre-season programme gathers pace. Listed among the club directors on Guiseley’s website is one Steve Parkin. Last month the millionaire businessman publically revealed he was bidding to buy Bradford City, alongside the Bradford Bulls, to form a Bradford Sporting Club. Two offers to purchase the Bantams outright were rejected, before joint owners Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn offered Parkin the opportunity to join the club as a third investor.

Parkin has since cooled his interest, revealing he is in the middle of tying up another business deal that is proving time consuming. But while no takeover or new investment is imminent, the possibility of Parkin getting involved with Bradford City remains in the longer-term. With football rules stating you can’t have controlling interests in two different clubs, Guiseley must be wondering whether investment they enjoy from Parkin will be withdrawn sometime in the future.

All of which is for another time, but the increasing links between Guiseley and Bradford City do stir up added interest in this game beyond a typical pre-season friendly. Having watched the Development Squad thrash Silsden AFC a week ago and then the first team draw 1-1 at Matlock Town last Friday, manager Peter Jackson will look upon tonight’s game as a chance to mix together players from both games as building fitness and understandings becomes the priority.

The future of the latest round of trialists following the Hanson route are also to be resolved. Nahki Wells has figured in both games so far – netting twice at Silsden – suggesting he is being heavily considered. Danny Kerr, who showed promise against Silsden, may get another go. Those who failed to impress in that game – such as the wonderfully named Mole Kes – will have already been released.

Of more pressing concern is the goalkeeper situation, with former Aberdeen shot-stopper Mark Howard expected to be given a chance this evening as he battles with Rhys Evans and Jon Brain for a contract to compete with the still-injured Jon McLaughlin next season. Iain Turner is still training with City, but looks set to move to Preston.

Since storming out of Valley Parade two seasons ago, the stock of Evans has risen considerably among supporters following a succession of replacements failing to convince. Yet while his performances for City during the 2008-09 season were solid they weren’t exactly spectacular, and his two years away have seen him make just 14 first team appearances elsewhere.

Howard and Hanson aside, the rest of the team tonight is impossible to predict. There are less than three weeks until it all kicks off, and so a degree of significance can be attached to this evening’s events which means no one can afford to take it too casually. Besides Hanson himself is living proof of the importance of making a good impression in July.

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

Beating failure – Bradford City vs Luton Town – League Two preview

Come 5pm Saturday Bradford City’s promotion hopes will have either been strengthened or weakened – but one thing they certainly won’t be is over.

Two successive defeats is disappointing and three would be considered “unacceptable”, but with City’s home vulnerability resurfacing that is entirely possible as would-be-11th-but-for-crazy-points-deduction Luton come to town. After a week in which talk of failure has emanated from some quarters – preceding any actual failure itself – it’s worth reflecting on what it would look like. A home defeat would probably push City out of the play off positions; but, at worst, City would be six points behind the leaders, with 37 games to go.

It’s said by some that the fear of failure led to Stuart McCall playing 4-5-1 at Shrewsbury last weekend and, largely ignoring three key injuries and an appalling referee display, the City manager’s perceived negativity has resulted in some of the strongest criticism towards him yet. Whether or not the system worked in the way he intended; Stuart will obviously be moving back to 4-4-2 for this one.

Top scorer Peter Thorne, who’s absence in defeat has further highlighted his importance, is expected to be fit enough to lead the attack alongside Michael Boulding. Barry Conlon will be back on the bench having been made scapegoat by some for last week’s failings. Some of the criticism is unjustified but it’s hard to argue that the Irishman has done enough, when given the opportunity, to warrant a contact beyond January and it’s up to him to prove his worth. Willy Topp, fresh from a wonder goal in the reserves and closer to fitness, is also likely to be among the subs.

Lee Bullock’s injury will allow the promising Dean Furman to keep his place and Stuart may look for him to share more of the defensive responsibilities with partner Paul McLaren than Bullock has been. Former Hatter McLaren joined City in the summer having topped the League One assist chart the previous season, but the more withdrawn role he’s playing has lessened his impact going forward. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley will be patrolling out wide, with some disappointment this week that they won’t be pushed as hard to keep up their excellent form as they might.

At the back Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke will be looking to rediscover their early season swagger and, unless Paul Arnison makes a miraculous recovery, Simon Ainge will get a chance at right back. The 20-year-old made his City debut two years ago but has had few opportunities to push on, his last one ending in failure. Stuart’s decision to give youth a chance instead of making yet another loan signing is applauded on this site and Ainge will aim to make it a quiet afternoon for keeper Rhys Evans.

For Luton, former Bantam Lewis Emmanuel makes a second return to Valley Parade since leaving two years ago. Briefly it seemed he’d gone onto better things in the Championship but, despite having trials at Birmingham and Southend during the summer, Lewis has fallen with the troubled Hatters and could feasibly be playing non-league football next year. It’s to be hoped Don Hutchinson won’t carry the influence his fellow ex-Premiership star Darren Anderton managed two weeks ago, while ex-Chelsea striker Sam Parkin will need to be watched.

Yet the biggest threat of failure will arguably come not from the visitors, but in the stands. Considering we were topping the division two weeks ago, the criticisms levelled at City by many supporters this week have been unnecessarily high. Conversations before this match are likely to contain the phrase “we’d better win today” and, judging on past form, the chances of supporters getting behind the team if they don’t start well are highly slim.

A delve into City’s recent history adds further reason to fear such failure. During the past two seasons, promotion hopes looked credible going into the middle of September – and were all but extinguished when October was over. It’s easy to pin point the respective defeats to Huddersfield and Hereford as the moment things went wrong, but defeats are always going to happen and it was the later ones at home to Brighton and Accrington which really tipped the balance towards another season of failure. During both these games the crowd quickly turned on the team and worked against it – and a similar reaction if things aren’t initially going to plan on Saturday could prove similarly damaging.

Earlier this week one fan wrote they were sick of hearing the management and chairmen falsely building up our promotion hopes each summer, as though pre-season optimism has nothing to do with us supporters. Well promotion this season is my dream, promotion this season is your dream, promotion this season is Stuart McCall’s dream, promotion this season is Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn’s dream, promotion this season is even Barry Conlon’s dream.

If we all channel our efforts in the same direction, accepting we succeed and fail together, the chances of us all achieving those ambitions will surely be greater. So, should City fall behind on Saturday, how are you going to react?

Roll On Up As The Greatest Show On Earth Begins Anew

Much effort and energy has gone into the decision made by Julian Rhodes to cut Bradford City season tickets from the £15 a game prices that are common in all football to the £138 they went on sale at today. Six quid a game is cheaper than the cinema and the best value in football. It is brave, it is ambitious, it is innovative and brand defining. It is everything people who work in marketing and branding would want. It deserves to work.

Rhodes cuts prices with the hope of increasing demand and nurturing an atmospherical fan base for the future. In a way Julian Rhodes is legacy building the in same areas that Geoffrey Richmond started. The Quid-a-Kid generation at Valley Parade are now the foot soldiers of our fans.

For so long Rhodes has stood alone at the helm. The Gang of Five do in some cases superb work – David Bosomworth’s dealings with the youth set up is paramount – but Jim Brown’s ability to take up the mantel of leadership above and beyond struggling with Peter Etherington for that position has been noticeable. Enter Stuart McCall.

McCall provides the leadership to push Rhodes’s plan to fruition. We are Stuart’s club again. This is a good thing and everyone sees it. The Midland Road stand – unsponsored for a year following Peter Etherington’s promises – is to be redubbed The Morrison’s Stand as the local supermarket magnet Sir Ken’s grip on the company that holds his name lessens and the board of Bradford’s biggest plc come round to the community the inhabit. Should Intersonic not want to continue then – as BfB understand it – Bradford City would play at The Morrison’s Stadium.

Sponsorship – as with bums on seats – is on the up. So is Mood.

Simon Ainge signed a new two year deal to do the job he loves and boomed

We should be expected to do well because we are a big club. We were a big club in League One so of course people will be looking at us to be up there. We obviously need some more players but with the ones we’ve got here already, I can’t see why we won’t go back up.

Stuart McCall must be pleased. Ainge has offered to play right back next term should the David Wetherall/Mark Bower partnership not be plundered. McCall himself started in the number two slot for the Bantams and the fact that Ainge joins Tom Penford, Joe Colbeck and Craig Bentham in signing contracts with the club shows a spirit of trust in the products of Bradford City.

On a Friday afternoon the mind is given to idle speculation and the mix of young players and a new serge of supporters all playing for a man who has gone from bootroom skinny to backroom manager fills the heart with anticipation and joy.

£138? I’ll be getting one.

City Offer Deals To Ainge, Penford, Colbeck and Bentham

The need for Bradford City to change focus from a club that buys to a club that produces players has been obvious at Valley Parade for some time and the fruits of that policy – first voiced by Gordon Gibb but continued through the investment in the youth set up – are becoming apprarant as the Bantams offered new deals to Tom Penford, Simon Ainge, Joe Colbeck and Craig Bentham.

The four – who all featured in David Wetherall or Colin Todd’s selections last season – are offered new deals while cohorts Joe Brown, Patrick McGuire, Nick Smith and John Swift are released.

The mystery of the stunted development of John Swift will remain at Valley Parade. Impressive in the first team on his debut under Colin Todd and a mouth on committed leader of the juniors who played well in the reserves something – and one doubts is was the performances of Richard Edghill – stood in Swift’s way.

Joe Brown’s release comes after his shined as a bright young thing but failed to nail down a place in the first team squad. Both Brown and Nick Smith are released to allow a more clear path through the ranks for seventeen year old Leon Osborne who featured in the last game of the year. Such a process – of setting a bar for the young players to beat and backing them when they do – replacing them should they not – maintains a healthy demand for continued improvement in the ranks.

Of the retained players Ainge looks ready for a place in the starting eleven next term and Bentham and Colbeck are already considered squad players. Penford has ability to spare as a succession of managers have believed and one hopes that with the exits of Marc Bridge-Wilkinson and perhaps Steven Schumacher he can turn that ability into performance.

Bridge-Wilkinson, Schumacher, Richard Edghill and Xavier Barrau are waiting for a new manager to be installed – something expected within two weeks – before being offered deal. Schumacher and Barrau are thought to be ready to sign, Edghill to be thinking over an offer from Macclesfield and Bridge-Wilkinson to be Port Vale bound.

Russell Howarth has also been released with Ben Saynor stepping up to number two goalkeeper.

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